Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

5.18.2011

Blame Woodstock?

The early reactions to the highly anticipated John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s report “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” reveal some interesting interactions between the media, the Church, scientists, and the public.

Take Laurie Goodstein's story in The New York Times as an example (...within the last year Goodstein has come under fire from many claiming she has an anti-Catholic bias. She has publicly responded to these claims). The Times was one of the outlets that broke the Wednesday media embargo on the report following the lead of Religion News Service. At the time of this post, Goodstein's story quotes from interviews with a few sources about the research, none are scientists and most seem unlikely to be objective readers. She has contacted me a few times in the last decade regarding news stories about the Church. From these interactions and regularly reading her work, I personally do not think she is biased against the Church as some claim. Instead I think she has some of those general journalistic tendencies to mistrust both the institutions she covers and scientific studies—especially when the science is funded by one of these institutions. This comes out clearly in her story on the John Jay study.

She writes, “…the report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s. Known occurrences of sexual abuse of minors by priests rose sharply during those decades, the report found, and the problem grew worse when the church’s hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims. The “blame Woodstock” explanation has been floated by bishops since the church was engulfed by scandal in the United States in 2002 and by Pope Benedict XVI after it erupted in Europe in 2010.

Her last sentence leads to the perception that Church officials were looking for an explanation (presumably deflecting responsibility) and found one to their liking as early as 2002, “floated” this explanation and that they then commissioned a $1.8 million research study to reflect this explanation. Goodstein’s characterization of this as “blame Woodstock” is an unnecessary and ridiculous oversimplification (the study speaks much more broadly to the social changes occurring across decades) and is even in conflict with her own broader description of the findings. As she states in the text above this explanation also prominently includes Church-related factors such as “priests who were poorly prepared and monitored” and that “the church’s hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims.” That doesn’t sound as simple as the “blame Woodstock” sound bite that creates the narrative for the rest of the story.

But the impression her simple “blame Woodstock” comment made has and will continue to have an impact (it appears to have gone “viral” with more than 12,400 mentions in online descriptions of the study in the last two days). Because her story was among the first (breaking the embargo) and because it was in such a prominent publication it seems to have created a popular frame for discussion of the report. Take as an example the following comment on Goodstein's story by a reader:

What!?? .... I am and intend to remain a lifelong Catholic, but the assertion that the sexual revolution of the 60's and 70's caused priests to abuse children is ludicrously embarrassing to the Church .... in a different context let's try this one on for size: the current economic turmoil has caused me to rob a couple of banks therefore don't prosecute me .... the church hierarchy needs to get real on this horrible issue. Whatever happened to individual conscience and responsibility?

Goodstein does note that “…this study is likely to be regarded as the most authoritative analysis of the scandal in the Catholic Church in America” but then I think attempts to question the objectivity of the research by following this by noting the cost of the study and that “About half was provided by the bishops.” 

The lead author of the study, Karen Terry, is a well-respected expert on sexual offenders and offenses. She was educated at the University of California, Irvine and Cambridge University. She is a full professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she serves as Dean of Research. I doubt Professor Terry would compromise her reputation and career to produce a study that “fits” something that Church leaders are accused of devising and “floating” in 2002. She did not “need” this project to advance her career (it will likely bring her more public criticism than praise). There is no institutional dependence or relationship with the Church and the program at John Jay would have continued on just as it is if they had not received this grant.

In the past, I have been a researcher on social scientific studies commissioned by the USCCB. I can say this of my experience. I was never asked to do anything other than find the answers to the bishops’ research questions. There has never been a single suggestion or request to edit, alter, or influence my work in any way. I believe Professor Terry and her team would have experienced the same interactions. As academics it makes no sense to conduct a study and write a report that is nothing less than the best research possible. Even worse would be to create research that is intentionally inaccurate to serve the needs of the party commissioning the study. This would be criminal fraud (note that the John Jay study includes federal funding). Are there “scientists” who might be willing (and able) to do this? Sure. But they are more likely to be found in for-profit, private sector research firms or in advocacy “think tanks.” They are not expected to be objective (nor rigorous). These are the “hired guns” of the scientific community who are not worried about or interested in government funding. But for college faculty who are doing peer-reviewed work, intentionally producing inaccurate research is just untenable (recent cases of scientific misconduct in the medical and pharmaceutical fields have led to dismissals and criminal charges).

Ironically, after years of being criticized for not doing enough about abuse, now the Church is suspiciously scrutinized for funding this study with well-respected academic researchers? I believe the Catholic Church was seeking truth in commissioning this study. It is part of their effort to understand abuse in the past and prevent it in the future. This report's explanations do not provide any sort of excuses or absolution.

The most difficult aspect of the John Jay study for the media and public to “digest” is likely to be that social context mattered (among other causal factors). Goodstein and others will simplify and belittle this finding as “blame Woodstock” but doing so indicates a general lack of awareness of the massive amount of research on the social psychology of deviance and crime that has been conducted in the last 50 years (...has any journalist interviewed criminologists or social psychologists who are not at John Jay and asked them their opinion of the research?). We tend to think of people who commit crimes or other deviant behavior as “bad apples”—people with a psychological disorder or an exceptional lack of morality. We strongly emphasize nature (biological and psychological) explanations of their behavior and minimize the role of nurture (society, socialization, and social context). This is a grave error. Let me explain.

Would you kill another person if instructed to do so? Of course not. You are a moral person. You do not break laws. You would have no motivation to do so. How many people would? 

Stanley Milgram, the man who shocked the world,” asked a sample of psychologists this question in the early 1960s and most thought a very small percentage of the population would do this—those with psychopathic personalities. Milgram then devised an experiment to see just how many “normal” people might unknowingly be inclined to kill another person in an nonthreatening social context. His inspiration? The Holocaust. He wondered how could we explain this extraordinary evil, which required the participation of so many ordinary Germans? Were there just a lot of bad apples? No. Context mattered a lot and Milgram's study became the defining research for understanding the social psychology of deviance. To see it yourself search YouTube for a 2009 BBC replication of Milgram’s original 1961 experiment (there are multiple copies and video from earlier studies as well). Milgram's research is considered unethical by today’s standards due to the psychological harm it may cause participants. But the original study and its many replications indicate there is about a 2 in 3 chance you would kill someone else if instructed to do so in the right context

Still don’t believe context matters much? There is more. Much more. The Stanford Prison Experiment, the Robber’s Cave Experiment, the Asch Conformity Experiment, the Rosenhan Experiment, the Good Samaritan Experiment, etc… I could go on and on about studies showing the importance of context and the largely unrecognized  malleability of human personality and behavior. One of the best summations of some of this social psychology research is by the lead researcher in the Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo. If you have 20 minutes watch one of the most revealing and insightful lectures (link to TED talks) on the topic of how and why people can come to do evil things.

The fact that social context “matters” does not absolve the person committing the illegal or deviant action from responsibility for their decisions in any way. It also does not deny that bad apples or individual personality factors matter as well. It just helps us understand how deviant decision can become more or less likely in different social settings and climates. The good news from social psychology is that this means we can create institutions and rules that modify social context and make the likelihood that people make decisions that lead to deviant or illegal behavior much less likely. I think this is what the Church has been trying to do in recent years and will clearly continue to work on in the future. Its funding of this study and ongoing institutional development is something that should be more widely adopted. Note the John Jay study researchers found that “incidence of child sexual abuse has declined in both the Catholic Church and in society generally, though the rate of decline is greater in the Catholic Church” (pg. 13).

For example, the incidence of sexual abuse of students by teachers in America's schools is not well understood (...for some revealing numbers see a Google News search for stories about arrests for these allegations in the last month). When these cases are in the news they tend to be framed as an issue of bad apple teachers. Rarely is the social context of schooling in America today considered as a possible contributing factor to this problem. The magnitude of abuse in U.S. schools has been noted in a previous government funded study by Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Charol Shakeshaft (she is cited in the John Jay report). Many have disregarded Shakeshaft's work. Ifblame Woodstock” sticks to the John Jay study I feel this research may be largely ignored as well.

I am still making my way through the John Jay report. I hope readers in the public will make it beyond media representations and read it themselves as well. As a researcher, I do not see evidence of conspiracies or “white washing” that is suggested in many comments to the media coverage of the report (few social psychologists or criminologists will be surprised by the period effect findings or that context matters). I think the research community will appreciate the contribution this report makes to the study of sexual abuse in the Church and more broadly in American society.  The reception of the report by the media and public is another matter entirely.

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